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Integrated or Interoperable: A Customer's Answer

There was a great customer panel for consultants and analysts at the Cisco Collaboration Summit (for consultants, analysts and partners) in Los Angeles last month. Three customers took questions posed by the Cisco moderator about their unified communications and collaboration (UCC) initiatives, investments and concerns.

About halfway through the panel, the moderator asked, "Which is more important to you, integration or interoperability? Would you place more value on a totally integrated suite of products or on the ability of each product category to interoperate with other systems and brands?"

My first thought was that this was going to be a series of customers affirming Cisco's leadership in consolidating all the necessary products under one brand, available through one channel. Heck, maybe the customers would even take a shot or two at companies who build ecosystems of partnerships rather than acquiring everything that they imagine the customer would need.

But no! He went on to explain that interoperability is more important for two reasons:

1. Interoperability is required even within a vendor's own single-branded suite, since all the component parts need to interact with each other. It is much better for a customer if these components interact using recognized standards for signaling, media and information management. Standards-based interoperation makes the component easier for the customer to install, test and maintain, whether separately or in combination with vendor services.

2. Interoperability produces more value over time, since it gives the product or component more applications and since it assures flexibility throughout the product life cycle. Interoperability means that the product will work with legacy solutions during a migration period. It means that the product can work with other companies' communications solutions and diverse brands (such as federation of IM and Presence or such as inter-enterprise video calls and conferences). And it means that as the market evolves and new solutions appear, the future products are most likely to work with the current "new" product.

Brilliant! What a great summary of why interoperation is critical. I think the Cisco moderator was a bit taken aback, but the audience practically broke out in applause.

Of course, this answer does put more onus on the vendors. The product management and development teams have to keep standards-based development on the funded priority list for each and every release, even when a very smart engineer discovers a shortcut. If standards-based development becomes a culture, the vendor usually benefits greatly from the standards-based discipline, since products can be developed and tested more readily and since the products will meet customer expectations such as described above.

Also, since almost all the companies in the UCC marketplace are expanding their product portfolios through acquisitions (plenty of examples: Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya, Aastra, Siemens, NEC, ShoreTel, et al.), standards-based interoperation becomes both a criterion for valuation of the acquisition target and a means of facilitating incorporation of the acquired technology into the acquiring vendor's product suite.

Standards-based products also give the customer more options. It is not practically feasible for one vendor to always have best-in-class technology, so customers are always evaluating the choice of a new best-in-class option vs. sticking to the incumbent vendor's suite. Just think of the thousands of Tandberg video customers right up to the day that Cisco bought that company. The list of such examples is too long for this article, for sure. Also, as Fred Knight pointed out in this earlier post, more and more enterprises are expecting interoperation of their communications systems with their business application software.

The good news is that customer expectations are shaping the market. As Russell Bennett and I reviewed at Interop NY 2012 and in a recent UC Strategies podcast, the number of proven, off-the-shelf UC interoperation options continues to grow. This is good news for the entire industry. Russell and I will be presenting a refreshed and continuously improved review of Interoperation at Enterprise Connect 2013; we hope you will be there!